Salmon can delight in more ways than perhaps any other fish. At breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner (plus every hour in between). It can be smoked or cured, roasted or poached, steamed in a bag or skewered on a stick. You can serve it with eggs any which way, fold slivers through tarts and pies, stir flakes through kedgeree or quiches, or slice and dice it raw for tartares and the start of Scotch eggs with a twist. Some recipes take it (and you) to Thailand, Switzerland and England, others fuse it with Middle Eastern flavours and some pile it inside tacos.
A naturally fast food, there is always a new, edge-of-your-seat way to get your salmon fix. One of our favourites to cook it – and the route we’re most likely to turn to, be it for a weeknight supper or when drawing up a fancy-schmancy dinner party menu – is seared in a pan. This shows off all the fillet’s best qualities: crisp, shattering skin above, succulent, flaking flesh below.
And despite what you might have heard, might think, or might have experienced, this magic happens fast and comes easily. Here, we look at how to master the technique so that next time and every time you cook it, it’ll be 10/10 perfect.
Let’s get ready…
Pan-frying salmon asks very little of the cook. There’s next to no preparation and just a few minutes’ attention by the hob.
All the fillets in store have been scaled and pinboned for you, so the only prep step you need to focus on is dabbing the fish dry with kitchen paper. Removing any excess moisture is key to that crisp skin you’re shooting for. The skin needs to be really dry, mind, so once you think you’ve dabbed enough, dab some more just to be sure.
(At this stage you could move straight on to cooking the salmon. But if you’re in the market to elevate your fillet – who isn’t? – take a second to score the skin. Three or four confident cuts are all it takes – adopt the mindset that you’re stroking the skin, not slashing it. You don’t want to cut too deep. Why do this? Mainly because it makes your fish look even more aesthetically pleasing. But it also allows you to add subtle layers of flavour – sneak some sea salt flakes into those exposed cuts, or be playful with picked thyme leaves or chilli flakes. Scoring the skin has the added benefit of preventing the fish from curling up in the pan, but if you aren’t scoring it, don’t worry – read on where we’ll tell you an easy way to achieve the same effect.)
Let’s get cooking…
Now turn your attention to the frying pan, which should be non-stick and placed over a medium-high heat until it’s more than a little bit toasty. Add some oil and leave it to get hot. (Ever had salmon stick to your pan? Chances are this will have been the result of your pan and oil not being hot enough.)
Lay the fillet into the pan skin-side, going away from you (so any oil doesn’t splash onto your hand). Using a fish slice, a spatula or if you’re brave, your fingertips, press down on the flesh to amp up the contact between skin and pan – if you haven’t scored the skin, this process also helps prevent the fish from curling up.
Let’s… do nothing
At this stage, turn the temperature down a notch. (Ever had salmon with burned skin? A pan that was too hot for too long was the likely source of your woe.) And then swap your hands for your head. The last thing you want to do is get fidgety, too nervous, too impatient, and flip the salmon too soon. Instead, take a step back and watch the fish – the flesh is a better indicator of doneness than any timing guide. As the heat from the pan penetrates through the fish, that bright pink colour will change to a beautiful baby pink.
The salmon should stay on the skin side for the majority of the cooking process. This offers the skin the max chance to get crisp, and it helps protect the flesh too. Salmon can dry out if it’s in direct contact with a high heat for too long, so the skin acts as a protective layer. (Side note – even if you don’t want to eat the skin, still try to cook the fish with it on. Once the salmon’s cooked, the skin will be easy enough to remove.)
Once your fish looks about three-quarters done, use a fish slice to carefully turn the fillet over. Because most of the cooking has been on the skin side, it should lift clean off. Salmon is best served slightly under – and keep in mind that it will cook a bit more off the heat – so the flesh side only needs the briefest meeting with the pan. One or two minutes at most.
And that’s it. Remove the salmon from the pan, squeeze with a little lemon or lime juice (which always brings fish to life) and serve. (With what? That’s the hard part – if it helps, we think beetroot and horseradish purée and a candy beet salad is the best place to start.)